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It's Not Just a Southern Thing

Racist Violence from Jena to Oakland

by GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER

Oakland.

While tens of thousands of well-meaning activists travel to Jena, Louisiana to rightly protest the miscarriage of justice in the case of the "Jena 6," police killings continue unabated in Oakland. Gary King is only the most recent victim.

"See you when I get there"

As the sun climbs slowly down the sky over 54th Street in North Oakland, shafts of light come down between the tracks of the BART train above. We are standing on the patch of ground that divides Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. Next to us, in the northbound lanes, is a large patch of blood.

A makeshift shrine has been erected here, under the BART tracks, to memorialize the life and death of 20-year-old Gary King Jr., a.k.a. G-Money. T-shirts with pictures of the dead teen smiling among friends sit alongside flowers, stuffed animals, and bottles of Hennessey and Grey Goose with lit candles in them. While much of the Henny has been spilled on the ground and poured on the blood patch by those mourning their fallen comrade, an equal amount has been drunk by those who have been here since 10am, attempting to grapple with their grief and rage.

Such memorials are all-too-common a sight on the streets of Oakland, where this year’s murder count is currently pushing the 100-mark. As one penned inscription reads: "2007 is a fucked up year for our people in the Bay." This feeling of desperation and inevitability is also expressed in another discreet note, which says quite simply, "U in a better place, see you when I get there." But King’s memorial is less sadness than anger and outrage: on Thursday afternoon, Gary King was shot in the back and killed as he fled from the Oakland Police, but it is unlikely that his death will ever enter into the city’s "homicide" tally.

Shortly after I approached the shrine with a photographer friend, a young man rolled across the crosswalk on a low-rider bicycle. "Who you with?" he asked suspiciously. When he realized we weren’t with the mainstream press, his suspicion dissipated. Pointing across the street at the news van, he made clear why he was suspicious: "They tellin’ lies," he asserted. And indeed, during the four hours that we remained at the shrine, the reporters remained across the street, broadcasting "from the scene" only in the loosest of senses. They interviewed no one. They didn’t need to: they had already gotten their story from the police.

Suspected of being a suspect

The day before, at about 4:30pm, Gary King and a group of friends were walking out of East Bay Liquors. A patrol officer, Sgt. Pat Gonzales, was headed southbound on the other side of MLK, near the 55th Street light. The officer claims to have identified King as a potential suspect in a murder that had occurred nearby a month prior (note here the words "potential" and "suspect"). For anyone that knows the geography of the incident, this "identification" was quite a feat: a full block away, looking diagonally across six lanes and between the thick pillars supporting the BART tracks, Gonzales was allegedly capable of identifying King.

The officer crossed under the tracks, tires squealing, to confront the group of teens in front of the liquor store. According to witnesses, Gonzales grabbed King by his dreads, while it remains unclear if the officer was attempting to carry out an arrest. After King pulled away from Gonzales, the officer used his Taser to try to incapacitate this "potential suspect." When this didn’t work, King took off fleeing across the MLK crosswalk. Before even reaching the divider, Gonzales had shot him twice in the back. No fewer than a dozen witnesses corroborated this to me, which isn’t surprising since the shooting took place in broad daylight on a busy street.

According to a witness, who identifies himself as King’s cousin, after shooting King, Gonzales grabbed him. "He held his gun in my face and told me I better watch it." The officer then approached the dying King to handcuff him, before leaving him lying in the street to call backup. According to witnesses, it was only after the backup arrived that an ambulance was called. After being left bleeding, handcuffed on the pavement for nearly 15 minutes, Gary King was dead by the time he reached Highland Hospital. He was the third fatal victim of an "officer-involved shooting" this year, a polite term the OPD likes to use when it kills people.

Dozens of police cars then maintained a blockade, shutting down the six-lane street for more than four hours. According to one witness to the shooting, this was "to prevent a riot," and also to give the officers a chance to cover-up the details of the killing and, according to some, plant a gun on the victim. King’s cousin is clearly suffering when I speak with him: "They shot my cousin right in my face We traumatized, we fucked up." The victim’s brothers, too, are paying their respects. One is a teary-eyed 17-year old wearing a sweatshirt with pictures of King and the message "R.I.P. G-Money."

According to Gonzales, via a statement from the OPD, the officer felt a gun in King’s pants, and after the young man attempted to flee, Gonzales claims that he was seen reaching into his waistband. The press has largely reiterated the official story: King was an "armed suspect" who threatened an officer. Case closed. One local news outlet even went out of its way to outdo the Police statement, writing that King had "pulled a gun" on the officer. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that King is consistently reported as a "murder suspect," without qualification. Even the police department had argued that he was merely a "potential suspect," that is, Gary King was suspected of being a suspect. Most shocking is the fact that, days after the fact, the OPD downgraded this initial statement: King is now posthumously considered to have been a "person of interest" in the murder, not even a suspect.

But the police story, repeated by the mainstream press, doesn’t square with the numerous witnesses who described the shooting to me. Firstly, everyone on the scene denies that King was carrying a gun, or that a gun was found on the scene as the OPD is claiming. "He ain’t no gangbanger," an aunt tells me. Moreover, even "neutral" witnesses like the cashier at East Bay Liquors (who nevertheless claims that King was friendly and well-liked) never saw King reach for a weapon: as he fled, they say, he was holding up his pants by his belt, and the officer shot him in the back without provocation.

As the train passes overhead, a woman who identifies herself as a senior financial officer at UC Berkeley asks, "we hear so much about Black-on-Black crime, why don’t we hear about white-on-Black crime?" It has emerged since the shooting that Gonzales has been involved in two other shootings in recent years, one of which resulted in a fatality. On that occasion, the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing. He has now been placed on "paid administrative leave," standard OPD procedure, while he waits to be cleared once more.

"Panther Country"

This is, as one small handwritten note makes clear, "Black Panther Country." This is true in the most literal of senses: Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, and Bobby Hutton all grew up on the MLK corridor within a 5-block radius of the shooting. Moreover, East Bay Liquors (formerly Bill’s Liquor Store) was boycotted by Panthers in 1971, before current Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums negotiated a truce. While North Oakland has largely been replaced by East Oakland as the center of the city’s Black population, the gentrification that has affected this area has only made life for the remaining Black population even more difficult. As more middle-class whites enter North Oakland, spilling over from Berkeley in the North, security becomes increasingly a priority of the OPD.

While the Panthers aren’t around any longer, the King memorial is not lacking in revolutionary messages. Scrawled across the BART pillar is the accusation: "The Police did this," and "Fuck 5-0." Another mourner, using a phrase popularized by hip-hop group dead prez, claims to be "revolutionary but gangsta." Perhaps more ominously, one message reads: "The streets iz watching justice will be served 4 my brother in arms." A middle-aged man arrives, clearly angry, and begins to address some onlookers. "A boy was murdered here! Why ain’t this intersection closed? We need to shut this intersection down for a week!"

But this isn’t the only message that appears at the memorial. An older man arrives on the scene, telling the young men who saw King murdered that they shouldn’t blame the killer. Instead, they should "accept Jesus." The discussion is occasionally very heated, and one witness to the killing responds politely: "I’m not tryin’ to hear that right now." Minutes later, a mourner heaves a 40 bottle, which explodes next to a passing cop car.

"He gets those when he stressed"

As dusk approached, the mood was understandably somber. A young mourner and friend of G-Money began to stumble erratically. He crashed into my friend before falling into the rush-hour traffic streaming down MLK. There’s a moment of chaos, as we attempt to block traffic to prevent a second death in as many days. The commuters are uncooperative and oblivious as they head northward toward Berkeley, Kensington, and Albany, and it is only with difficulty that we clear the lane while the young man is lifted back onto the median. A flurry of calls are made simultaneously to 911. He is curled up, muscles tense and writhing as drool pours from his mouth.

The very same young, Black men so often criminalized by the police crowd around their fellow mourner. One strokes his head while another removes his own shirt as a pillow for the young man. An ambulance pulls up ten minutes later, despite the fact that we are a mere block from a hospital. That’s about ten minutes longer than the police backup took the day before, and today, no police respond to the emergency call. "He’s having a seizure," King’s cousin explains, gold teeth glinting "he gets those when he stressed."

A gallery of photographs taken by Jeff St. Andrews at the Gary King memorial is available at: http://flickr.com/photos/jeffstandrews/sets/72157600255850241/.

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives somewhere between Oakland and Caracas, Venezuela, and is currently writing about the history of Oakland hip-hop. He can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.